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Daniel Varisco, President of the American Institute for Yemeni Studies, talks about the days events and who the players are in Yemen

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PAUL JAY, SENIOR EDITOR, TRNN: Welcome to the Real News Network. I’m Paul Jay. Yesterday we reported that the Houthi rebels in Yemen had stormed Aden and taken control of the presidential palace. Well, today apparently they’ve been driven out of the presidential palace by Saudi bombing and other supplies and armaments to local combatants who have fought the Houthis off. In an article called Proxy Morons: The Demolition of Yemen, Daniel Martin Varisco wrote,

“The dream of a Yemen chosen by the Yemeni people free of outside influence has faded, perhaps an illusion from the start. (…) Historically, Yemen’s people have weathered civil wars, incursions and famines, but this was largely due to the relative stability of tribal custom and local governance. (…) Has the killing and hatred gone so far that Yemen is in danger of becoming another Iraq or Syria? I do not think so; at least I hope not. Over a millennium of tolerance between Zaydi and Shafi’i must mean something. (…) Only the coming months will tell if the proxy morons win the day or if Yemen is given back to its own people.” Now joining us from Doha, Qatar, is Daniel Martin Varisco. Daniel is president of the American Institute for Yemeni Studies, research professor at Qatar University, and advisor to [Meenah Tidnigan]. So what have, what do we know about what happened on Friday? How did the Houthis take a palace and lose it so quickly? DANIEL VARISCO, PRESIDENT, AMERICAN INSTITUTE FOR YEMENI STUDIES: It was probably a media stunt. Because they certainly had a lot of coverage in different media outlets. It was really no way that they could maintain that control, both because the Saudis have been dropping military supplies to Hadi’s forces, the ones that are still loyal to him, and there were reports that a group of tribesmen came down from Abyan as well. So it was a temporary little foray in there, and getting some news, and now they’re pulling back. JAY: Okay. Give us an idea of what’s going — who’s who, here. Because it seems that people who were dire enemies yesterday are allies today, and now the Saudis have moved in with an alliance that includes just about every Arab country there is. Why is everyone getting so involved in this? VARISCO: Well, there are a lot of temporary alliances. And there are a lot of different players, as you noted. And there’s a lot of misinformation about them, as well, because Yemen has for a long time been a terra incognita. Particularly, if there’s ever a report on Yemen, it doesn’t go into much detail. The main player you’re hearing about are the Houthis, which is a group of people, tribesmen form the North. They’re Zaydi in one way, in that this is their traditional religious perspective. However, the individual who was, inspired the movement, whose name was Hussain al-Houthi, lived in Khoum, and by all accounts I have seen, really became a Jafari or a Twelver, as they’re called at — an Iranian Shia, he was very supportive of Khomeini. And if you look at the name of the group, it’s also called Ansarollah. It’s like Hezbollah. It’s very similar. There’s a strong interest, at least by Hussain, who was assassinated in 2004, in what Nasrallah was doing with Hezbollah. So the Houthis are a group of people that, yeah they’re Zaydi, but not traditional Zaydi. And their primary motive appears to be political. You may have seen their mantra on their signs, it says, “Death to America, death to Israel, curse the Jews and victory to God.” That’s not Zaydi, that’s coming straight out of Iran. And then you have Ali Abdullah Saleh, the man who traditionally had said he was dancing on the head of snakes. And he is no longer in power. He was in power for 33 years. The UN says between $30 and $60 billion worth of Yemen’s national budget, I suppose, over 33 years when into his pocket. He’s the real playmaker, here. If he had not had many units of the army supporting him, then there’s no way that the Houthis would have made their way into Sana’a, and – JAY: But I don’t understand this. Saleh has, one of his things he did when he was in power was massacre Houthis. VARISCO: Yes. Well, Saleh would do anything to stay in power. So when the Houthis were problematic for him, he went against them, and he sent one of his primary generals, Ali [Musen] who then during the Arab Spring, Ali Musen had a stalemate against Ali Abdulluh Saleh’s republican guard. You would need a scorecard to keep track of who was allied with whom at what particular point. It’s a struggle for power. It has very little to do with your particular religious persuasion. I mean, Saleh is a Zaydi. He went after the Houthis, who are Zaydis. And it appears as though he even sent his son Ahmed to Saudi Arabia to say, if you let my son come into power, I’ll get rid of the Houthis for you. So it’s a Faustian bargain on that part. JAY: Now, the Houthis, were they discriminated against? Relatively dispossessed? Yemen itself, other than Saleh, is very poor. VARISCO: Yes, it’s a very poor country. Part of the problem is that when Saleh went after Hussain al-Houthi, who had really turned against his regime because he was, in Hussain’s view he was too supportive of the United States. When he went against him, and killed him, then it made it a tribal dispute as well, because there’s a tribal ancestry going on there, as well. And you know, Saleh tried to do almost a scorched-earth policy. There are still many Yemenis who are in refugee camps because of that. And it’s really hard to keep track, because you also have al-Qaeda, which the Houthis are against. Okay? And the Houthis also went against the local variant of the Muslim Brotherhood in Yemen, called Islah. Now you have this group called ISIS, you have some people in Yemen saying, whether it’s really true or not, saying that they are now part of ISIS. You have a lot of different players, and then there’s the southern movement, called Hirak, which wants to secede because they’re upset at the way they were treated. It’s a lot of players. JAY: And the Houthis are also opposed to ISIS and al-Qaeda. In theory you would think the Houthis are actually fighting the people that are supposedly the targets of the war on terror. VARISCO: Yeah. I mean, this is why it’s really hard to figure out who’s who. Because the Saudis have declared the Muslim Brotherhood a terrorist organization, and the Houthis are against the Muslim Brotherhood in Yemen. Obviously the Americans are against al-Qaeda and so are the Houthis. And even though the Houthis say “Death to America,” they have not attacked aAmerican interest. They didn’t attack the embassy, in fact, the you provided some protection when the ambassador left. So its a situation where there’s a lot of rhetoric, and you ask, why did I call it proxy morons. Basically because I think everyone is acting in a moronic sort of way. There is a huge issue, I know several people have talked about it on your network, of what exactly is the support coming from Iran. The thing to remember is that the Saudis have been involved in Yemen not ony as neighbors, but they have spent millions and millions of dollars in Yemen. They basically supported the Ministry of Education for a number of years. Iran has no soft power in Yemen. It’s very new. The Houthis by accepting, if you will, the moral support of Iran and then by establishing a more formal relationship, for example, they gave the port of Hodeida, who’s in charge of the port, who’s working there, they gave that to Iran which of course is not going to go down very well with the Saudis. There’s a lot of rhetoric on both sides, and it’s really difficult to know, do the higher levels in Iran really support this, or were they caught by surprise. JAY: And where are the students? The thousands of students that seem to have the sort of beginnings of a real democracy movement? VARISCO: They’re not being heard. Some of them are in jail. Some of them were killed, because they dared to say that they weren’t supporting the Houthis. They have largely been left out of even the national dialog which was going on for the last couple of years, the one that was supposed to lead to a new government in Yemen, a new administrative structure. The students are still there, but they don’t have guns. JAY: Yeah, well, Mao Tse-tung wasn’t wrong about where political power comes from. Just finally, what’s the plan of the Saudi? What’s the objective of this strategy, to make sure there’s a pro-Saudi government in Yemen? VARISCO: Well, the Saudis have always interfered, I suppose is the right word, in Yemen’s politics. They do share a long border. There are obviously tribes who go in terms of who they’re related to, are back and forth. I don’t think they have a particular interest in sending troops. I think they’re trying to force the Houthis and Saleh to a negotiating table. I mean, there was that offer, it would have been here in Doha, I think a week or so ago. A couple of weeks ago, now. And the Houthis refused to negotiate. The question is, will the bombing inspire them or lead them to negotiate, or will it make them more angry and will they refuse to negotiate? I have no idea. JAY: But is there a just cause here, in the sense that the Houthis have a legitimate reason for rebellion? VARISCO: Well, everyone in their own point of view has a legitimate reason. I can understand why the Houthis were upset with Ali Abdullah Saleh. But they were provided access, they were given representatives in the transitional government. Hadi, President Hadi bent over backwards, and they were, even when they came in last September they did not depose him. Then of course they put him under house arrest, and he resigned. They are incapable of ruling. The Houthis are — first of all, there are many Zaydis in Yemen who are not Houthi. Okay, not all Zaydis support the particular Houthis. They’re a northern group. The [Hadramis], the people in the South, the people in [inaud.] none of them are really in support of the Houthis. So they’re incapable of governing or creating a government. So they needed Hadi. And now that Hadi is gone, they’re in trouble. JAY: All right. We’re going to do a series of interviews after this with Daniel where we kind of do a modern history of Yemen, make a little more sense of this very complicated situation. Thank you for joining us, Daniel. VARISCO: I’m very glad to have been here. JAY: And thank you for joining us on the Real News Network.


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Daniel Martin Varisco is President of the American Institute for Yemeni Studies, Research Professor at Qatar University, and advisor to MENA Tidningen. He first conducted anthropological fieldwork in Yemen in 1978 and returned numerous times as a development consultant and for research. He has written books on Orientalism, Islam, Islamic astronomy and agriculture.